In June washe thy shepe, where the water doth runne:
and kepe them from dust, but not kepe them from sunne.
Then share them and spare not, at two daies anende:
the sooner the better, their bodies amende.
Thomas Tusser 1557
One of the key operations which once took place on sheep farms every summer, seems to have entirely died out. A few days before clipping, ewes were dropped into deep pools in dammed up burns and rivers to scour out the sand and grease from their wool.
Writing in his book about rural life in the north of England and the Scottish Borders between 1400 and 1700, Angus Winchester says: “Late June and early July marked the next station on the annual round of sheep husbandry, when the old sheep were washed to clean their fleeces in readiness for clipping to yield the annual harvest of wool…
“Washing was carried out in a deep pool (the washpool or wash ‘dub’) in a river or stream, through which the sheep were forced to swim, the flock being gathered in a washfold, built on the bank with an opening facing the pool…
“Washing usually took place at the end of June and was followed about one week later by clipping… but rather later dates, in the last week of June and early July, are found in less fertile upland areas…”
There is no reason to believe that this practice was any different from that which took place in the hills of Dumfriesshire and the Stewartry, either before or after farms were enclosed by drystone dykes.
Until comparatively recently the Wool Marketing Board published two prices for most grades of wool – washed and greasy. Washing added value to the raw wool but reduced its weight.
The washing of sheep in Glencairn seems to have been associated with Cheviot ewes so that when Blackfaced sheep took over the higher hills, the custom of washing ewes declined.
Jim Little, when he farmed Auchenstroan, used to help his uncle wash South Country Cheviot sheep at Shillingland throughout the 1960’s. The lambs were shed off and the ewes were driven across the river to a forcing pen which ended at the ash tree (see photograph). Did they jump or were they pushed? As one wetting may not have dislodged the sand from their wool the ewes were brought round for a second bath. The hoggs had the same treatment about a week before hogg clipping.
A number of washing places have been found but there must be many more. Their locations are now not easily identified as the dams and pens have largely disappeared.
Twomerkland: NX 771 893 Where the boundary burn re-enters Twomerkland from Blackston, before reaching the linn, there is a 1.7 metre length of stone dam, two courses high. A two metre wooden post lies nearby and there used to be one or two stobs still standing. The pool has silted up.
Dungalston: NX 758 908 200 metres below Calside bridge a great nose of natural rock deflects the Craigdarroch Water to the right making a deep, wide pool. There are signs of a funnel shaped enclosure leading to the rock. James Paterson painted a picture here entitled ‘The Washing Pool’.
Shillingland: NX 731 913 Here there is a deep natural pool in the Craigdarroch Water at its nearest point to the steading, overhung by an old ash tree. There are no obvious signs of any man-made structures. On a modern map the words ‘Sheep wash’ are printed near – but not very near – this site.
Chapelmark (Knockaughley): NX 728 916 There is a platform of stones approximately three metres by three metres and 0.5 metre high some 16 metres from the Craigdarroch Water. The river, or a channel of it, may once have flowed past the platform, or water may have been diverted to it by a ditch. Indications of old field boundaries suggest that this site was once in the S.E. corner of a small field.
Auchenstroan: NX 708 917 If it was not for the elongated pear shaped pen marked on the 1899 25 inch map, this site would be all but lost. A few metres downstream from Stroanshalloch bridge there is a 2.5 metre length of concave wall 0.7 metres high, set into the river bank. This is where the funnel end of the pen – 1.5 metres wide – ends. The wall surrounding the pen which would have been 18 metres long by seven metres wide, at its widest, was irreparably damaged when the ground was ploughed prior to tree planting, and is now no more. The remains of a possible dam survives on the south side of the burn.
Craiglearan: NX 706 924 Situated on the Jerkney burn the enclosure boundary on the south side is the dyke marching with Auchenstroan, 14 metres away. There is a metre length of dam footing on the south side of the burn and five metres on the north side. There is also a remarkably well preserved platform, built of dry stone, one metre high and 2.4 metres long, set into the burn bank. The remnants of five or six stobs by the dyke mark the position of a former gateway.
Carroch: NX 681 917 This site, on the Carroch Lane to the west of the parish boundary, has reverted back to nature as no man-made structures remain. There is a pool, but not a very big one, in the burn which is only about one metre wide here. On a mid 19th century map are the words ‘Washing Pool’.
This Month is the prime season for the washing and shearing of Sheep;
J. Worlidge 1675
Systema Agriculturae; The Mystery of Husbandry Discovered by J.Worlidge 1675
Thomas Tusser His Good Points of Husbandry Collated and edited by Dorothy Hartley 1931
The Harvest of the Hills by Angus J.L. Winchester 2000
Ordnance Survey maps:
Kirkcudbrightshire 6″ to 1 mile Sheet X 1853
Dumfriesshire 6″ to 1 mile Sheet XXIX 1860
Dumfriesshire 6″ to 1 mile Sheet XXX 1860
Dumfriesshire 6″ to 1 mile Sheet XXXIX 1860
Dumfriesshire 6″ to 1 mile Sheet XXIX S.E. 1900
Dumfriesshire 1: 2,500 Sheet XXIX 12 1899
Dumfriesshire 1: 2,500 Sheet XXXIX 2 1900
Explorer 1: 25,000 Sheets320, 328 2000
The Edinburgh University Press (www.eup.ed.ac.uk) kindly gave permission for extracts from ‘The Harvest of the Hills’ to be used. Thanks are also due to Lindsay Dunse and Margaret Rodan as well as James Little.
© A.B. Hall